Taking a Deeper Look at the Newly Created Professional Referee Organization

This is the first (and probably last) piece in a segment I’d like to call Doherty Soccer’s Mega Media Mop-up.  In this week’s episode we are going to take a look at the brand new Professional Referee Organization (PRO), a creation of U.S. Soccer.  Many soccer bloggers who are much better at what they do than I am have posted on this topic, but none of them has adequately approached why this decision was made or probed some basic questions surrounding this issue.  Those are what I intend to tackle in this post.  Let’s give it go.

For this exercise I read the official press release by U.S. Soccer, a short write-up by SBNation, a post on SoccerByIves, the great piece by Brian Quarstad of InsideMNSoccer, a Canadian perspective from the11.ca, and a video interview by Simon Borg with Nelson Rodriguez from MLSsoccer.

Recently, the USSF has decided to take an important step in its governing and regulating of soccer in America, which is kind of its job.  In conjunction with MLS, US Soccer has created the Professional Referee Organization to oversee, evaluate, train and improve the quality of referees in the United States and Canada.  The joint operation has named Peter Walton, longtime English Premier League official, to lead the program as general manager.

PRO will be funded jointly by MLS and U.S. Soccer, while referees under the organization’s umbrella will also take charge of MLS reserve matches, NASL, USL-Pro, and U.S. Open Cup matches this season in addition to international club and country friendly matches.  A quote from the U.S. Soccer press release explains the official rationale for this centralization of officiating in America:

The creation of PRO is designed to increase the quality of officiating in U.S. and Canadian professional leagues, develop more professional quality officials at a younger age and develop officials who will represent the United States and Canada in FIFA competitions.

The big-wigs of soccer in the United States have made broad and positive statements about the new organization.

“We’ve always understood that the development of referees is an important aspect to the growth of the game in the United States,” U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said in a release. “PRO is another step toward the improvement and professionalization of our top referees. With the additional resources and funding provided by the formation of PRO, we will continue to build upon the progress we’ve already made.”

“Thanks to collaborative work with U.S. Soccer and the Canadian Soccer Association, officiating in MLS made significant strides forward in the past year,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. “The overall level of MLS refereeing is good, and the creation of the Professional Referee Organization is the logical next stage of development. MLS and U.S. Soccer proudly welcome PRO General Manager Peter Walton, who will utilize his exceptional experience as a referee and as an administrator, along with substantial resources, to help MLS achieve its vision of setting the worldwide standard in officiating.”

Reading between the lines, U.S. Soccer’s own press release reveals the true driving force behind this decision to streamline recruitment and promote young “up-and-coming” officials.  “Seven new rookie referees were introduced to MLS last year, participating in almost 20 percent of the league’s regular season games.”  The real motivation behind this move by USSF is trying to cope with MLS expansion.  USSF doesn’t currently have enough qualified referees, not even to fill out their centerpiece league, MLS.  They were forced to give 7 new officials a baptism by fire because a system was not in place to properly train referees.

PRO was designed primarily to fill out the ranks and provide numbers for MLS refereeing.  Improving the quality of such refereeing is a secondary motivation.  Providing viable officiating templates for NASL, USL-Pro, U.S. Open Cup, etc., is more of an afterthought.

The last two seasons, 2011 and 2012, the league had 34 matchdays.  There were a total of 306 matches in 2011 and there are 323 matches scheduled in 2012.  Another MLS expansion, bringing the number of teams up to 20, would increase the number of MLS matches in a season by 17.   Or if the league moves to a balanced schedule, 20 teams would each play 38 matches for a total of 380 league matches.

Add to that number, the reformatted 2012 U.S. Open Cup with 16 matches in the first round, 16 in the second, 16 in the third, 8 in the fourth round, 4 in the semifinals and then the final for a total of 61 cup matches.  At least 29 of these cup games could include MLS teams, which will demand a high level of officiating.  380 MLS matches + at least 29 cup matches + a dozen international club matches during the summer and international friendlies that take place on U.S. soil = conservatively upwards of 420 matches that need qualified officiating teams during 2012.

Coping with this increase in matches would be hard enough to accomplish without a significant drop-off in the quality of officiating.  If PRO can handle this and also get ahead of the curve with regards to increasing the level of officiating, it would be damn near amazing.

Neil Buethe, Director of Media Relations for U.S. Soccer, spoke to Brian Quarstad of http://www.insidemnsoccer.com about PRO:

 “One of the goals is to increase our full time referees from where we once had four, to having a lot more.  Most of our current referees have other jobs and being a referee is on the side. Those officials are not able to concentrate on refereeing as much as they would like to do or we would like them to. With PRO, we will have more funding for that and funding for more experienced technical staff as well as increased training for our officials.”

“Last year they pushed hard to get new younger referees into the professional level. Any time you do that you’re going to hit some bumps in the road. But last year we had a system in place to really mentor them, to talk them through the process after each and every game with the decisions they made and to help them to improve. But if you don’t do that you have a crop of referees who are getting older and older.”

Upon reading the three write-ups on the subject, a number of questions immediately came to mind.

Do referees (and linesmen and 4th officials) sign contracts with each league or with USSF and then are assigned to different leagues?  The excerpt below from Brian Quarstad article hints at the latter option, but the official U.S. Soccer press release and a search of the internet is quiet on the subject.

“At the same time “13 clipboards” (4th officials) were working with the new teams of referees and those same 4th officials were used as head officials in many Division 2 NASL games as well as US Open Cup games and Division 3 or other international games. ”

And then, are these officials paid by each league or directly by the U.S.S.F. with any of the league dues (or registration fees or however you properly describe those payments)?

NASL and USL-Pro clubs are currently hemorrhaging money and if U.S.S.F. generates the extra funding for officiating by raising the fees they charge member leagues, it could be bad news for lower division soccer in America.

Are there any figures on how often or how many referees make a switch between leagues during a season?

Short answer; no.  These figures exist because Herb Silva, Director of the Professional Referee Department for U.S. Soccer in 2011, made reference to this occurrence while talking to Brian Quarstad.

Will this referee training program and overall U.S.S.F. officiating investment do anything to the system that USL-Pro utilizes? A system in which matches are officiated by “a national referee as the [center] referee, but the assistant referees and fourth official are often locally based, as the league and teams often cannot afford the travel expenses for four officials for each game all season.”  The quote comes from this 2011 article posted by the USL-Pro club Charleston Battery about refereeing in that league.  I have been wondering if NASL also uses a system similar to this one.  But, more directly, this article implies that the individual leagues pay for referees, and any investment by U.S. Soccer should alleviate this issue.

However, this opens up another opportunity to widen the distinctions between the second division NASL and (de facto) third division USL-Pro.  In addition to attracting high quality players, such as former Rhino Alfonso Motagalvan, NASL would now be able to boast better officiating through their owners’ investments.

How much is this development connected with the decision to allow MLS clubs to appeal red cards with the league? 

This system in place for the 2012 season is similar to challenges in major tennis tournaments.  Each team will have two appeals for the season.  As long as the appeal is successful, it will not be docked from the team.  However if the appeal is unsuccessful, the team loses an appeal.  This seems to go hand in hand with reforming officiating, but was never referred to or mentioned in any articles about PRO.

The development by U.S. Soccer to restructure refereeing is partly in response to quite horrendous officiating in MLS in the 2011 season.  As a Red Bulls fan, I have followed with some discomfort and some justifiable anger the club management’s ongoing argument with the league over its officiating.  If you need a refresher course, brush through this article from June 2011 which was posted after Thierry Henry was ejected from the game in Portland for an off the ball dust-up that was already settled by the players before the referee decided to insert himself into the spotlight.

Here’s the Canadian perspective from the11.ca.  In the face of MLS expansion and the creation of PRO, the league will not change it’s quota on the number of Canadian referees involved in matches.  Honoring a prior agreement that the percentage of Canadian referees in MLS will be based on the number of Canadian home games (but not dictating that only Canadian officiate in Canada and Americans in the U.S.) ensures continued cooperation between the Canadian Soccer Association and U.S.S.F. with regards to officiating.

That part is interesting, I guess, but not why I linked to the post.  Later in the article the author, Steven Sandor, addresses the horrific injuries of the 2011 season with quotes from  MLS Executive Vice President of Competition, Nelson Rodriguez, who said, “What we are doing is nothing short of a little revolutionary, but it will not be easy.”

MLS received a lot of negative publicity in 2011 over losing three of its stars — Seattle’s Steve Zakuani, FC Dallas’s David Ferreira and Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales — to serious injuries. Those injuries led to widespread calls for MLS to improve its officiating.

But Rodriguez pointed out that MLS had been discussing how to improve refereeing a year before any of these injuries occurred. And, he noted that, after review, in the case of all three injuries, the referees were vindicated.

“In each of those incidents, the referees made the call correctly on the field,” said Rodriguez. Offenders were given straight reds on the Morales and Zakuani challenges. And, correctly, there was no call on the Ferreira injury. Replays showed Vancouver’s Jonathan Leathers made a clean challenge on the 2010 MLS MVP, and that the broken ankle was more a case of bad luck than malice on the Whitecap’s part.

Simply handing out a red card for a leg breaking tackle isn’t a sign of competent officiating.  Executing control over the flow and tone of the game is a token of quality refereeing.  The fact that the referee teams involved in the games in which Javier Morales and Steve Zakuani were injured allowed the physicality of those contests to get out of his control is the basis of harsh judgment on the subject and the source of fans’ scorn.

Simon Borg’s interview with Nelson Rodriguez (which you can watch here) elucidates what MLS wants to get out of PRO in the short-term.  Rodriguez said that the most important step is professionalizing the career of refereeing.  Making the few quality officials already in MLS full time employees would allow them to officiate more games than they currently do.  Having a handful of good referees as opposed to a cavalcade of mediocre ones will work wonders for the consistency of officiating in the league.  The hope is that the referees in MLS will become known for their officiating style in much the same way that teams and fans in England know how Howard Webb or Lee Probert will approach a match.

In response to an increase in MLS matches, the league wants to professionalize a handful of already competent referees and provide them with video review and selective training.  However, this idea won’t be enough if the schedule piles 7 matches on one day as happened on Saturday March 17th.  Having 28 competent officials on any given day doesn’t fit with Rodriguez’s talk of slimming down the pool of available referees.

But any move to improve refereeing, professionalize officials and put a structure in place to recruit talented amateur referees is a positive step for soccer in America.

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4 thoughts on “Taking a Deeper Look at the Newly Created Professional Referee Organization

  1. Pingback: Ismail Elfath and Refereeing in the Red Bulls-Montreal MLS Match | Doherty Soccer

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